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The bills your parents didn't have

Many of today's fixed expenses are for luxuries.

By Karen Datko Oct 6, 2009 12:48AM

This post comes from Trent Hamm at partner blog The Simple Dollar.

When I was young, my parents always managed to make ends meet, even though my mother was a stay-at-home mom (she had a part-time job of less than 10 hours a week when I was in school) and my father worked in a factory. Sure, we were able to bring in a little extra money by fishing and we lived very frugally at times, but my parents were able to raise three children on the income of one factory worker.

Flash forward to today. That scenario is basically impossible. Virtually every family I know either has both parents working full time or one of the partners earning a very solid income. The idea that one parent can work a typical factory job while the other parent stays at home is pretty much a thing of the past.

There are a lot of reasons for this change. Many people will point to inflation, talking about how much housing prices have gone up since the 1970s without a similar increase in wages. Others will point to food prices.

For me, though, the biggest change is the sheer number of bills that a "normal" family has.

My parents, for example, had their mortgage payment, a payment on a used car (usually), insurance, electricity and phone service. That was pretty much the extent of their monthly bills. They had their own well to provide water. They had a septic tank in the backyard. We had an antenna on our roof to watch television. We burned our trash in a barrel.

Compare this with our situation. We have all of the above bills (minus a car payment, at least for the moment), but we also have a cable bill, an Internet bill, a cell phone bill, a water bill, a garbage bill. Other families in situations similar to ours have many more bills: a car payment, Netflix and so on.

This adds up to hundreds of dollars a month for services that my parents didn't have or need.

What can be done about this? The first thing to look at is whether or not these bills are actually required, or if they just seem to be. Do we need Internet access? I use it for writing The Simple Dollar, but we could survive without it by using the library (which is within walking distance). Do we need cable? Not really. We could just toss up an antenna, use a converter box and still enjoy "Lost." Do we need a cell phone? It's nice to have during emergencies, but we could get a prepaid phone to take care of that need.

Right there, we're saving more than $100 a month. If we lived in a more rural area, we could utilize a well and a septic tank and eliminate our water bill, too.

What does this little exercise teach us? My parents were able to make different life choices because they weren't constrained by modern expenses. Even more important, we don't actually need many of these expenses -- we choose to have them.

If you ever feel stuck in your financial or life situation, take some time to look at your bills. Ask yourself how many of them you actually need -- and how many of them your parents would have tolerated. You might find that many of those bills can easily be tossed without reducing your quality of life much -- and when you do that, you free up a lot of after-tax money each month. That money can make the difference between having the stuff that you want -- or living the life that your soul needs.

Good luck.

Related reading at The Simple Dollar:

Published Feb. 6, 2009
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